Being a Better Evangelical and/or Better than an Evangelical
I love Evangelicals. Truth is, I are one. It's an identity I cling to because of those core truths it represents, even while those who represent the name are often folks I have no desire to align myself with.
Some of the things I love about Evangelicals' beliefs are:
- God has priority in all things...he is sovereign and a relationship with him is the essential ingredient of their life and faith
- the Bible is believed to be the authoritative word for all areas of life and knowledge
- their general quest to be authentic disciples
- the culture of mutual spiritual encouragement
In so many ways, I am deeply grateful that this is my heritage and affirm each of the above. It has instilled in me values for family, hard work, education and kindness to others. My parents demonstrated an abiding, personal love for Jesus and taught me the same. However, as I said before, no culture is above the need to be remade by the gospel.
What must be critiqued in Evangelical culture if we are to be effective agents of God's shalom? Asked another way, how has this culture warped us out of the image of God and how might we need to re-posture ourselves as followers of Jesus? These are significant questions emerging from my own autobiography, and questions that I believe are far more relevant and far to infrequently asked by many of my Christian brothers and sisters.
My critiques aren't exhaustive, nor are they universally applicable to all Evangelicals, but here are the three points I'd like to express today...
Evangelicalism has gone the way of most tribes in America by drawing its lines of inclusion/exclusion in ever narrowing circles. These days, many question if you can truly be called an Evangelical if you are not also a neo-Calvinistic, penal satisfaction atonement proclaiming, eternal torment for the damned affirming, dispensationalist eschatology believing card carrying member of the club.
Personally, I have major problems if not outright denials for every one of these positions.
We must stop working so hard to draw the boundaries which define who is in and who is out. Instead, it is time to point to Jesus as the center toward which we all desperately need to move. Jesus--the entire story of the true God who became a real human being to save the world--cannot be captured in our doctrinal statements. Doctrines are not God and we build idols when we treat them as such.
Evangelical theology has produced far too many instances in which we come riding in on our imaginary white horses, waving around a gospel that made sense to us but is all but irrelevant to people of other cultures--particularly those who are oppressed.
When was the last time you listened to a podcast, read a blog or a book by someone who isn't a white Evangelical? That might be a great place to start.
Unquestioned Ignorance of Privilege in White Evangelicalism
Ok, first I need to caveat what I have already said. I do not have really Evangelicalism as a whole in mind. I have white Evangelical culture. This is the context I was formed in and with which I have the greatest familiarity.
Emerson and Smith’s significant book Divided by Faith opens with a haunting wake up call: “This book is a story of how well-intentioned people, their values, and their institutions actually recreate racial divisions and inequalities they ostensibly oppose” (1). The people they are referring to are my people.Our approach to social/cultural leadership is unfortunately epitomized in movements like the “Moral Majority,” a fundamentalist lobbying organization that attempted to use power to impose so-called Christian beliefs and ethics through the American political system. We don't use this strategy much anymore mostly because we aren't the majority at this point and it doesn't work. While I still cling somewhat anemically to an Evangelical identity, any theological ethic of leadership that lovingly addresses the contemporary context will be a break from these historic patterns. In an age when inequality is as race based as ever, transformation in this category is imperative.
One look at Jesus' approach to making change happen reveals another way. We could begin by asking how Jesus used power. By amassing lots of it and forcing his agenda on others? No. He became the least, the servant of all, the one who refused to use his limitless divine resources and instead sacrificed himself on a cross.
It is time to acknowledge that as white people, our society has (unjustly) endowed us with great power. Stop saying that people are poor or in prison purely based on their personal choices and lack of positive will. People exist within systems that have profound influence on their personal possibilities. This is something we must address.
As people with power, we must ask what the model of the crucifixion means for us in real life.
From the first moment Jesus opened his mouth to begin his ministry, he was political. Evangelicals know this at some level, though they would rarely say it that way. They must or they would not be so unified in they desire to end abortion (An important issue, for sure, even if the approach has often been flawed. Mother Teresa set the best Christian example here when she put herself on the line by telling people to give their unwanted babies to her.)
But Jesus was political in ways radically different from Rush Limbaugh. For Jesus to say that the Kingdom of God had arrived, or for the early Christians to declare that "Jesus is Lord" was a direct counter to the claims of Rome and its empirical assertion that "Caesar is Lord."
This goes back to the first point. We think that as Evangelicals we pretty much have things figured out. But time after time, we are saying "Jesus is Lord" while still giving our allegiance to the ways of Caesar. Everything has to be reconsidered through this lens. The best questions we can ask sound something like this: "If Jesus were running things, what would they be like? What would happen here?"
I have been guilty of this more times than I'm comfortable admitting. What I am having to learn to do is to be passionately about convictions but hold them with open hands, recognizing that I might be wrong and need to retain a critical posture toward everything, testing against the model of Jesus' life.
For too many people, being an Evangelical means getting it right.
Friends, be better than just an Evangelical who thinks they are right. Please don't allow this to be your primary identity.
Be a follow of Jesus the Christ. Seek his ways. Be conformed to him and no other.
The world desperately needs you to do so.